A long war makes for strange bedfellows. The Civil War has been dragging on for decades, and Southerner Mercy Swakhammer Lynch is married to a Union soldier and working in a Confederate hospital. Or she is until she receives word that her husband has died in a prisoner of war camp and her father is dying out west.
Mercy isn’t particularly keen to visit her father, who abandoned his family when she was a child, but he has asked to see her before he dies, so she tries to fulfill her filial duty. Mercy starts west on a passenger dirigible, but the civilian aircraft is accidentally shot down. Escaping death on the battlefield, the pistol-packing nurse secures passage on a purportedly civilian train.
The train is actually a Union war machine: the massive, heavily armed, near-legendary locomotive known as the Dreadnought. Its civilian passengers provide a cover for some dark doings that involve gold, land deeds, and a mysterious frozen cargo in the last car. But the doings aren’t sufficiently covert, and the train is infiltrated by spies and foreign agents, then attacked by bandits, Rebel war machines, and a dual-fuel new Confederate train even more dangerous than the Dreadnought. As the battle-locomotives converge in a high Western pass, Mercy discovers the greatest threat of all is the not-exactly-dead men in the Dreadnought’s cold car, who have a lot of hungry, relentless friends waiting in the mountains.
Yes, Boneshaker fans, the zombies are back in Dreadnought, the sequel to the award-winning first novel in Cherie Priest’s steampunk/Weird Western “Clockwork Century” series. In her new outing, Priest emphasizes the Wild West and Civil War aspects of her alternate history. She introduces an interesting new cast and a strong, likeable new protagonist, deferring the return of Boneshaker characters to the denouement. Priest also wisely saves the zombie-fighting for Dreadnought‘s climax.
Dreadnought doesn’t always work. A couple of times, the protagonist’s behavior makes no sense. (Would you keep it to yourself, if you found evidence of a possible saboteur on your ride? Would you knowingly expose your knowledgeable nurse self to a possible contagion, then resume hanging out with the rest of the passengers?) However, Dreadnought avoids the flawed framing device and fog-murked aspect of its prequel, to deliver rousing Weird Western steampunk entertainment in a superior sequel.
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